Travel Smart: Crazy for Frequent-Flyer Miles

You can’t beat the system anymore, but here are a few ideas for coming out ahead.
frequent flyer miles


I love to hoard frequent-flyer miles and think of them as money in the bank, a proper savings account for good citizens but much more fun than an IRA. Still, I keep hearing how they’re all going to expire soon, and I don’t want to be stranded at the airport, teary eyed and screaming in vain for an upgrade. So I decided to call my old friend Joe Brancatelli, who produces an online newsletter called Joe Sent Me and probably knows as much about airline business travel as anyone else on earth.

The first thing Joe told me was that I was doing it all wrong.

“Never let your miles sit in a frequent-flyer program,” he said. “Are you earning interest?” Joe explained that the deck is stacked against us these days. “When the programs first started in the 1980s, they were truly about rewarding customer loyalty. Unrestricted miles meant just that: You cashed in and got what you wanted. Now, frequent-flyer miles are all about marketing and capacity control. You won’t get anything—or anywhere—if airlines can sell the seats first.”

Between Joe’s sage advice and my folk wisdom based on years of flying, I was able to cobble together what I think is a reasonable strategy for navigating the new system. Jet-set Do’s and Don’ts, if you will:

Don’t save up for that dream trip

The bar to redeem miles keeps getting higher. For example, the cost of an unrestricted business-class ticket to Europe is now around 400,000 miles, up from 200,000 only a year ago. There are also new surcharges to upgrade, and those fees will only continue to climb. As airlines keep cutting routes in a bad economy, there will be even fewer seats available to frequent flyers.

Do use miles for short hops

On routes like New York to Atlanta or L.A. to Denver, seats are easier to come by. Cash in often and enjoy the ride.

Don’t redeem miles without doing the math

True, you don’t want to let your miles sit around doing nothing, but you also want to get the best bang for the buck. For instance, you could cash in 50,000 miles for an $800 coach ticket to Europe and pay a $1,000 surcharge to upgrade to business-class. Total cost: $1,800. (Standard round-trip, business-class fare from New York to London is $6,000.) That sounds good until you consider that airlines are discounting like crazy right now, and you might be able to pick up a business-class roundtrip for less than $2000—and accrue miles to boot. (Check out Finnair. For travel to Asia, Cathay Pacific has just reduced its business-class fare on some flights from New York to Hong Kong to $3,938.)

Do upgrade to business class when it makes sense for you

On my annual trip from New York to California, I book months ahead and have flexible dates. It always works, and I’ve never paid more than $450 for the roundtrip coach ticket. (For my fall trip this year, though, there will be a $50 fee to redeem on the least-expensive fares.)

Don’t change your buying habits just to earn miles

Credit card companies, says Joe, now purchase more miles from airlines than customers accrue, making frequent-flyer programs one big marketing scheme. “The banks succeed when you take the bait,” he says, “paying annual fees and running up interest charges.” On the other hand, if you pay your cards off every month, and read the fine print, you’re fine. Of course, you can buy miles from the airlines, but that’s a really bad idea (I can hear Joe saying: “What part of ‘don’t change your buying habits’ do you not understand?”). But even he approves of this method if you happen to be, let’s say, a little shy of scoring a prized first-class roundtrip to Sydney. “What’s an extra $500?” he says, “for a ticket whose value is $8,000.”

Do play the hotel game

Unlike airlines, which are giving you only seats they can’t sell, hotels’ frequent-stay plans are the true loyalty programs these days. “We go to Manhattan a couple of days for Christmas and stay at Embassy Suites for $149 a night, and it’s enough to earn a free night at the Hilton in Porta Rosa in Sicily,” says Joe.

Don’t be so loyal

If you make Platinum status by flying more than you stay home, you’ll be treated more like a frequent flyer of yore, with lots of options and privileges. But that’s probably not you. Or me. (Gold is the best I’ve been able to muster.) So you don’t need to pass up a convenient nonstop on an airline whose program you don’t subscribe to just to garner a couple thousand miles with your carrier of choice. Platinum status will still be out of reach.

Do have a beer in the airline’s lounge

The next time you’re delayed for more than a couple of hours, cash in some miles (about 65,000), and sit out the delay in a comfortable chair, surrounded by computer outlets and lots of drinks and nibbles. Membership is good for a year.

Don’t worry about miles expiring

All you need do to stay active in most programs is make one flight, redeem some miles (for, say, a magazine subscription), or make a purchase with an airline-affiliated credit card in a one-year period.

Do end all frequent-flyer programs

While it’s not in your power, this would be the best solution of all, saving everyone money as well as angst. Believe me, the airlines would love to pull the plug. But who would dare go first?

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